Plug-in Public Power: The Case for Community Energy Democracy

Joint public ownership will accelerate a just transition and seal local support for stalled community renewables development.
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Plug-in Public Power: The Case for Community Energy Democracy

Joint public ownership will accelerate a just transition and seal local support for stalled community renewables development.
Executive Summary

The author would like to thank Anna Markova, Andrew Cumbers, Adrienne Buller, Amelia Horgan, Mathew Lawrence, Melanie Brusseler, Sarah Nankivell, Chris Hayes and Sacha Hilhorst for their comments on this paper.

Cover image credited to Ashden/Climate Visuals under creative commons licence.

The energy transition is an enormous opportunity to not only decarbonise but democratise the power sector. In particular, a just and rapid transition will be best implemented if people and communities feel they have a meaningful stake and say in the renewable infrastructure we must build to cut bills, deliver genuine energy security and reduce emissions. A key vehicle to delivering this is community energy: renewable energy generation wholly owned and/or controlled by communities or managed through a partnership with commercial or public sector partners. This briefing examines how Labour’s proposed £3.3 billion Local Power Plan can underpin a new generation of community power, reversing the recent stagnation of community power development. Drawing on international evidence, it sets out the institutional design — the public-common partnership, between communities, local authorities and GB Energy — through which communities can exercise genuine ownership and governance over new renewable assets and infrastructure, in the process cutting bills, reducing emissions and delivering energy security.

Full Text


Market coordination — an institutional nexus of private ownership, market governance and investment guided by the profit imperative — is failing to deliver a rapid, just and secure energy transition.[1] The alternative is clear. Public coordination of the transition, both in terms of investment and ownership, is needed to fairly accelerate renewables rollout and to unlock system-wide benefits of cost, coherence and certainty. However, public coordination does not mean simply leaving the monumental task of electricity decarbonisation to a state-owned public company. Instead, it is an opportunity to give communities a genuine stake and a say in how they power their country. A critical vehicle to drive this double movement — of the conjoined decarbonisation and democratisation of power, electrical and economic — is a new era of community ownership.

This report builds off Labour’s proposed Local Power Plan, a £3.3 billion fund to support community ownership of renewable generation, to present its own vision for scaling community ownership. While the scale of funds dedicated specifically to community and municipal clean energy development is a welcome step forward, there are many forms this policy could take in practice — some better than others. This paper proposes an institutional path — the public-common partnership — to ensure communities genuinely co-own, retain and share the benefits from local developments. In this vision, a GB Energy-style publicly-owned generation company, alongside largescale clean energy infrastructure development, would develop renewable power in a model of overlapping ownership and governance between communities, municipal governments and the national energy company. It is a flexible, pluralistic vision that could see Liverpool City Region and GB Energy partnering to build tidal projects; cooperative energy projects piloted in coordination with local government; Greater Manchester putting up solar panels in partnership with community businesses; and so forth, in a rich new tapestry of co-ownership. It could equally lend support to ambitious projects like North Ayrshire’s 2020 green community wealth building strategy in Scotland, or the health board-owned Brynwhilach solar installation that powers a Swansea hospital.[2]  

The case for boosting community-owned power is not just about increasing public investment into new renewable capacity. It is about creating a democratic catalyst to revitalise growth in community-owned electricity capacity. That means ensuring local communities and workers have both the resources and incentives to back community power — and share in its benefits.

This paper first lays out the failures of the current energy system from a local lens: the lack of democratic accountability and the endemic inequalities between and within communities that contribute to fuel poverty. It then looks at international examples of community and commons-based energy development in Germany and Denmark to uncover how principles of subsidiarity and democracy can be applied to local projects and scaled up for maximum impact. From here, we set out our proposal for how the public-common partnership institution could dovetail with Labour’s Local Power Plan and wider vision for GB Energy.

Public-common partnerships in this proposal are comprised of three parts: 1) local or combined authorities; or other public anchors, such as an NHS hospital 2) a “Common Association” of a defined local community, whether it be a tenants union, an energy cooperative or the geographic area in question; 3) GBE as a representative of non-local public interests.[3] This nexus of ownership and governance — with each entity owning a third of the infrastructure and/or equivalent control rights — would help address the democratic deficit incumbent in current energy ownership models, while onshoring not just new renewable capacity, but wealth and knowledge

What is community energy?

Community energy, according to Community Energy England, is “the delivery of community-led renewable energy, energy demand reduction and energy supply projects, whether wholly owned and/or controlled by communities or through a partnership with commercial or public sector partners.”[4] The sector’s total capacity in the UK is 331 MW, with the majority in England and Northern Ireland (221 MW) followed by Scotland (82 MW) and Wales (27.5 MW). There are 495 identified community energy organisations: 323 in England and Northern Ireland, 103 in Scotland and 67 in Wales, bringing jobs and investment into local economies.[5] The exact form of these groups varies. Examples include the Brighton Energy Coop and the Bristol Energy Cooperative, which have installed solar capacity in their cities.[6] The latter has used revenue from its solar project for useful initiatives like helping residents switch energy suppliers. There is also a substantial support for these projects, evidenced by 217,489 people engaged in the sector and resident consent generated by local participation.[7] The benefits of community energy can be summarised as:[8]

  • Lower energy bills — with roughly £3.35 million saved;  
  • Less pollution — with 143,000 tCO2e abated;
  • Community wealth building — with an average of 70% of community energy organisational spending near the project, amounting to roughly £15 million goes to supporting local economies;
  • Re-investment — with an estimated community benefit fund value of £4.9 million across 98 organisations distributing £1.35 million in 2021, often invested in low carbon technology;
  • Locked in public support for renewables — with greater democratic decision-making.[9]

Nonetheless, despite the benefits, the growth of community electricity capacity has slowed from 81% in 2016-17 to 2.4% in 2020-21 — something the Local Power Plan has the potential to reverse.[10] To do so, it must understand and help address some of the key barriers to the growth of community and cooperative energy. Community power is stalling for three reasons:

  • Lack of public financing;  
  • Prohibitive planning restrictions;
  • Lack of community consent.

Lack of public financing

The collapsed growth of community electricity capacity largely tracks with the loss of supports like feed-in-tariffs (FiTs) and resultant increased uncertainty, stalling dozens of projects. Without long-term revenue payments like the 2010 to 2019 FiT, the number of community energy projects generating a surplus shrank from 90% to 20%.[11] The FiT and the Renewable Heat Incentive, which was shuttered in 2022, covered between 10% and 79% of revenue in four case studies researchers from the UK Energy Research Centre analysed.[12] That is reflected in a legacy of incomplete projects. Investment data suggests UK general renewable energy projects dropped by half with the loss of subsidy support.[13] Across the UK, 81 community energy organisations reported one or more stalled projects — 65% more than in 2020, amounting to 68 MW. This is despite more community-sensitive, place-specific projects being worth billions of pounds more in wider social benefit, including health and well-being, compared to place-agnostic counterparts.[14] While these projects are partly financed by community shares, particularly equity issued by a cooperative society, a survey found those are not the largest source of community energy financing. Researchers found that of £42.8m of the repayable finance surveyed, £21.1 million was loans, £18.8 million was community shares and £2.8 million was bonds. A little over two thirds of the loans were from commercial lenders, with public bodies making up the remainder.[15] However, the lack of guaranteed payments means private investors are less likely to participate, even as community projects are forced to secure more of their own financing.[16] The withdrawal of the public funding means many of these projects are endlessly deferred — and a dream deferred is a dream denied. Difference financing tools may be helpful for specific stages of project development, but leaving community energy development to the private finance is a non-starter. What is abundantly clear is the public must take an active role in community energy democracy if it is to reach its full potential.

Prohibitive planning restrictions

The discretionary planning system is another roadblock in the way of community benefits and reduced emissions, particularly for onshore wind. Many planning issues for local power fall on councils, as projects that generate less than 50 MW need permission from the relevant local authority and public consultation to move ahead.[17] Despite public support for renewable energy, trivially small numbers of objections have derailed projects. This is the result of tougher planning restrictions, which Conservative MPs campaigned for in 2015, creating a de facto ban on onshore wind.[18] The restrictions introduced that year had two main elements: first, onshore wind projects must be located on land deemed suitable in a local or neighbourhood plan; second, all resident impact concerns must be addressed and the project must have their backing.[19] In September 2023, the Conservatives made a false start by seemingly lifting the single objection veto, but left most other regulatory hurdles standing. Zero new onshore wind plans have been submitted since those botched reforms.[20] These rules are needlessly restrictive. Many councils lack the resources to update local or neighbourhood plans and a few opponents should not hold a veto on clean energy.[21] While ostensibly a tool to promote resident voice, these measures have given outsized power to trivial objections and have combined with subsidy exclusion to essentially halt onshore wind development. IPPR reports that in the ten years leading up to 2015, England added an average of 180 MW from onshore wind per year, but has only installed under 1 MW per year since then.[22] Only 17 onshore wind projects received planning permissions, generating a meagre 6.7 MW or 0.02% of the National Grid Future Energy Scenarios onshore wind target — meaning England would hit that target at the leisurely pace of 4,700 years if nothing changes.[23] In the case of general solar, there are roughly 12.5 GW facing in some cases a two decade wait for approval.[24] Ofgem cites a “legacy of stalled, unviable and often highly speculative ‘zombies’”.[25] It has recently clamped on these under developed projects by asking them to get formal approval from a project’s landowner before proceeding, but more work needs to be done to clear the way for viable renewable projects.[26] The energy transition demands an investment sprint rather than an endless bureaucratic queue.  

[.box][.box-header]Case Study: Westmill[.box-header][.box-paragraph]The Westmill Farm is a working organic farm, stretching across 450 acres on the Oxfordshire/Wiltshire border. Farmer Adam Twine spent years trying to set up a community-owned windfarm on the land. Planning consents alone took 12 years to obtain, but in the end the project was successful, as 400 people invested sums ranging from £250 to £20,000. Altogether, this amounted to £4.5 million — sufficient funds to purchase five 1.3MW turbines, making the Westmill Wind Cooperative the first fully community-owned onshore windfarm in South-East England. The farm continues to be a working farm, which has welcomed thousands of community members who want to learn more about the project or admire the turbines.[.box-paragraph][.box-paragraph]With the wind farm a success, the group decided to expand into solar energy. In 2012, the Westmill Solar Cooperative raised approximately £6 million from some 1,650 investors and obtained a £12 million loan from the Lancashire County Pension Fund. The pension fund issued an index-linked bond, to be repaid over 23½ years. The Scottish Cooperative Party has recommended that this model be implemented more widely. Loans from local authority pension schemes can function as a unique form of patient capital, sparking financial viability without loss of equity or control. In addition, local authorities could fast-track community energy planning applications and waive local government planning fees for such projects. The Westmill board has also expressed the hope that the model might be replicated elsewhere. “The long-term income from community energy provides a great match to a pension fund’s commitments, and there is an obvious fit between local authorities and community projects. We believe this is a model that many others should follow in the future.”[.box-paragraph][.box]

Securing consent

Community consent is vital, but it must be secured by democratic ownership rather than unnecessary foot-dragging. While councils are encouraged to consider to green energy in their local plans, they rarely do so in practice in part because of the onerous National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) rules.[27] Based on a survey of 165 councils, Professor Rebecca Windemer found that 85% of a sample of councils have not identified areas suited to wind energy development in their local plans.[28] Further document reviews revealed 89% of all local planning authorities in England have not indicated suitable areas for wind energy in local and adopted neighbourhood plans.[29] The acute issues facing onshore wind are in urgent need for reform, but planning issues are not limited to those projects. Resistance to mixed use planning — which takes mutual advantage of solar power and agricultural land — threatens to slow the urgent need to roll out solar projects across the UK.[30] Combined with the limits on green energy subsidies, this impassable planning system has kneecapped efforts to meet the UK’s climate targets. Institutional reform packages must roll back these planning restrictions to unlock local power’s clean energy capacity.

Energy democracy

Renewable energy is incredibly popular. Three-quarters of Britons support expansion of wind power; 17,000 households opted to install solar panels per month last year.[31] Despite this widespread popularity, attempts to reverse the effective onshore wind ban have been paltry. For example, the 2022 Energy Security strategy conceded consultations “for a limited number of supportive communities” which would “consider how clear support can be demonstrated by local communities, local authorities and MPs.”[32] That is a long way from substantive democratic ownership. Giving voice and material benefits to the residents of the areas hosting these projects is the surest way to secure their support. Proposed reforms struggle to do that: Onward UK suggests the answer is securing community benefits where projects offer “jobs, procurement of local services, or associated upgrades to other local infrastructure” while “an agreed rate by developers into a ‘community benefit fund.’” The latter proposal would be run by developers with investment input from a local board.[33] But that model still sends the lion’s share of profits and power away from the host community to a private developer. This inequality between the profits accruing to the developer and the more limited benefits to the community often drives wind farm opposition.[34] However, there is an opportunity to deepen democratic control of investment and community voice. Reforming regulations so the majority of residents have the voice needed to push through projects may well be necessary; doing so on the behalf of private power would only undercut public support. Power to the people must not be confused with power to profit. A public-common model can address resident concerns over project surplus being used to plug holes in local authority budgets, granting investment decisions to democratically constituted boards.[35] Winning community consent only occurs when workers and residents have the power to grant it. Fortunately, the UK can compare its policies to a range of peer countries with successful histories of renewable projects owned and supported by the communities who benefit from them.

What is the Local Power Plan?

Labour describes its Great British Energy (GBE) proposal as “a new, publicly-owned clean generation company, that will harness the power of Britain’s sun, wind, and waves to cut energy bills and deliver energy security for our country.” As part of this, £3.3 billion has been allocated to the Local Power Plan which would offer grants and loans to local authorities and communities to “create one million owners of local power”. The proposal — albeit still lacking substantive public detail — would be for GB Energy to partner with councils and community co-ops to develop 8GW of clean power by the end of the decade.[36]

Locally, that would come in the form of 20,000 renewable power projects aiming to reduce pressure on the transmission grid and gain local support for onshore wind, community and household solar.[37] Labour has pledged to return part of the profits from those projects to communities via benefits like discounted energy bills or increased local council spending in the medium-term. It also emphasises project rollout in areas “that have a particular imbalance between supply and demand.” These commitments — and the outline of the Plan — are substantive and important commitments that we welcome. However, if the Plan is to kickstart a new era of community power that delivers on principles of subsidiarity, democracy and economic cooperation it will require a clearly defined institutional model to deliver community ownership and governance, nested within a broader just transition strategy.

[.box][.box-header]Case study: Lawrence Weston[.box-header][.box-paragraph]Founded in 2012, Ambition Lawrence Weston is a community group set up by lifelong residents of the Lawrence Weston estate on the edge of Bristol. Co-founder Mark Pepper described their efforts as a response to protracted disinvestment: “In 2012, they closed our college. By that time, all the assets were getting stripped: the swimming pool, the leisure centre… loads of stuff was haemorrhaging, services especially. So a group of us got together and said: ‘No one’s going to help us. We need to get off our backsides and do it ourselves.’”[38] Together, they hatched a plan to develop a wind turbine on the grounds of their post-war council estate.[.box-paragraph][.box-paragraph]The group secured grants from local and regional government, as well as from NGOs such as Power to Change and other funders to pursue a community energy project. In 2023, the construction crew finished building the turbine, which immediately became the tallest of its kind in England. The turbine has a maximum capacity of up to 4.2 MW — enough to power some 3000 homes. It is expected save more than 120,000 tonnes of CO2 over the course of its lifespan.[39] It will also generate an expected revenue of over £100,000 per year for the community, which will be used to train people up for good renewable energy jobs, to insulate homes and to provide relief for local families experiencing fuel poverty, among other things. Co-founder Mark Pepper told the BBC that the community benefits were the most important part of the project: "[We thought,] [t]here is money in this renewable energy lark, so why can't we have a stake in that?"[40][.box-paragraph][.box]

What Does the Evidence from Abroad Say?

Outside the UK, there is an abundance of alternative local community renewable policy regimes that place local and community ownership above private control. In Denmark, communities own 52% of wind energy; in Germany, local authorities have helped deliver projects that allow citizens to own roughly 50% of onshore wind.[41] Studying these models can inform a more democratic model of community energy ownership. Those lessons are:

  • The need for networking local projects within wider webs of community wealth building;
  • The precedents for citizen and worker project-level governance;
  • The political success of community-wealth building approaches;
  • The compatibility between central government policy and investment and improved subsidiarity of decision-making and governance of resources.


Networks of local public ownership

As frustration builds with privatisation of key utilities, Germany has become a case study for taking energy production back into local public hands.[42] The country has at least 305 cases of utility remunicipalisation, facilitated by municipal, intermunicipal and regional efforts to reclaim public governance — particularly in energy.[43] Prominent examples of regional government taking energy generation into public hands include Nordrhein Westfalen and Baden-Württemberg.[44]  Network associations among German Stadtwerke, or local and municipal electricity companies, are important institutional context for this expansion of local democracy. VKU (Verband kommunaler Unternehmen, or the Association of Municipal Corporations) has roughly 1,400 members and is guided by a core statement emphasising public welfare obligations or “citizen value” operated by local self-administration. Another association, Trianel, is a joint venture of over 80 Stadtwerke, formed in 1999 to facilitate buying electricity in the EU market, which has since expanded to include other European municipalities.[45] In 2015, it developed the first municipally owned offshore wind park Trianel Windpark Borkum, which now has a total capacity of 400 MW following an expansion in 2020. It has also built roughly 400 MW of onshore renewables capacity.[46] In one of the most prominent examples, in 2013 Thuringian municipalities made history by deprivatising their energy infrastructure and services to create some of largest integrated energy providers in Germany owned by municipalities. About 850 municipalities now hold majority ownership of the TEAG, short for Thüringer Energie AG (Thuringian Energy Public Company) at a rough cost of €950 million.[47] In the buyout process, the municipalities approached Thüga Group, a network of municipal enterprises, to act as a strategic partner and advisor for local politicians with little experience in the energy sector.[48] The network coordination between municipal enterprises created collective knowledge to facilitate taking energy governance into democratic control. This has translated into an expansion of unionised jobs regulated by a public sector-wide collective bargaining agreement, expanded profits for municipal owners via TEAG and a new focus on renewable investments geared to a post-carbon transition.[49] Networking German municipal enterprise is an instructive example for governing new local public ownership.

Project level governance

The German example equally offers useful lessons for firm-level governance. In one case the German town of Wolfhagen established a joint energy enterprise between the local authority and 264 citizens to create BEG Wolfhagen. Originally, membership was open to any resident who bought a share, but it has since widened to include anyone who buys energy from the company. These shareholders receive an annual dividend and the remaining money goes into an energy saving fund, overseen by a board comprised of nine cooperative members, as well as one each from the local energy agency, the Stadtwerk, and the municipality.[50] This fund flows into energy efficiency strategies, though it is also feasible that a similar model could redirect the surplus into retrofitting housing and further investments in renewable energy sources.[51] On a larger scale, a failed 2013 referendum campaign in Berlin proposed a fully owned public energy company with a governing board composed of seven directly elected citizen representatives, six worker representatives and two city council appointees, in addition to a mandate of ecological and social objectives. Another 2013 referendum in Hamburg successfully remunicipalised the utility, demonstrating a profitable and effective drive to more renewable energy — though it also “works to a model of commercialised service provision, operating within a liberalised energy market rather than under a more radical structure.”[52] Indeed, municipal power utilities “have been established in towns and cities of all sizes. If there is a lack of knowledge, municipalities enter into close strategic partnerships, with cooperation agreements and partnerships with other municipalities being local councils’ preferred method.”[53] Small grid operators are similarly more likely to seize on the energy transition while positioning themselves to develop smart grids.54  

What these examples suggest is that municipal enterprise can be an indispensable tool in the energy transition, but the more radical democratic requirements of a just transition demand an expanded mandate of ecological and social need that must be supported with adequate resources and coordination, either from public investment or coordination with other varieties of public ownership.


Winning local support

As Germany demonstrates that networking municipal enterprises can compensate for capacity shortages and ground more radical demands for climate justice, Denmark shows us how to navigate local politics for a more substantive energy democracy. That approach has resulted in wind powering roughly 55% of renewable energy generation, with large degrees of public ownership.[55] This has been achieved by keeping benefits local. In addition to market intervention, the backing of collective local ownership via rules like residency requirements for shareholding stakes has limited the intervention of far-off private capital.[56] However, as turbine size and required capital investment grew, the Danish government has not created new residency requirements since 2000 except for laws introduced in 2009 requiring individuals installing onshore wind turbines to offer 20% of ownership sales to residents within 4.5 km.[57] Similarly, the state set down consumption criteria, which limited the amount of shares an individual could hold depending on their energy usages levels. These rules have since eased, but their implementation at an early stage played a key role in shaping the ownership make-up of the Danish renewables sector: At its peak in the late 1990s, 150,000 families were involved and they or cooperatives accounted for 80% of windfarm ownership.[58] More recently, cooperative ownership still accounts for 15% of the sector, despite shifts to offshore wind. Local governments tend to appoint the board of typically urban municipal companies; more rural cooperatives tend to elect their boards via consumer meeting. Local boards then elect their regional counterparts.[59] Collective ownership has also been deployed at scale, with Mittlegrunden wind farm boasting a nameplate capacity of 40 MW, built in 2001. The windfarm’s ownership structure is split in half between the council-owned Copenhagen Energy and cooperative created with the help of the municipal energy service and 10,000 participating citizens.[60] The cooperative model, where local people share expenses and income from the project, helped facilitate local support for the project — where development otherwise derails over noise or visual complaints.[61] Encasing community renewable energy projects with models that offer direct community benefit builds in political support for transition development, while benefiting from a broader public institutional and subsidy regime that encourages collective ownership.

An enabling national state

Central state intervention created a supportive context for collective ownership. Without a welcoming fiscal and regulatory environment, community-owned energy projects are hamstrung: municipalities cite finance as the most common restraint on project development.[62] The Danish government introduced 30% funding for new wind turbines to protect the infant industry from a volatile world market in the 1980s, and similarly made public electricity suppliers accept renewable energy quota with feed-in tariffs and guaranteed prices in the 1990s.[63] More recent regulations, however, have begun to move away from this model. The 2018 Danish Energy Agreement favours larger offshore wind farms, while monetary incentives are released through tendering that citizen associations have a difficult time accessing. These changes come as community or citizen-owned projects are aging: in 2016, about 69% were estimated to be at least 15 years old.[64] Some vestiges of the older system remain. The Danish government requires new ventures — with the exception of any at least 16 km from the coast — to give a 20% share to local residents, but lack of local control via ownership has tended to fuel resistance to bigger projects.[65] Even the 20% rule has unfortunately struggled to gain traction, as developers poorly communicate investment plans to communities and residents with reduced control struggle to make meaning from projects that they have little involvement in.[66] These shifts in national policy have slowed progress for the sector, partly because of a lack of steady state leadership. By comparison, it may be helpful to consider the national policy stability offered by Germany’s infrastructure bank KfW, which is mandated to provide low interest loans accessible by municipalities and citizens.[67] Collective or citizen ownership of energy projects is sensitive to regulatory context; failure to support the growth of these projects and develop more ambitious governance may undermine the initial motivations for taking power into local hands.

A Just Local Power Plan

The Danish and German experiences demonstrate the need for multiple levels of support and public governance to coordinate and support local renewable development and co-ownership. These are sorely needed as the UK energy system fails to meet social and environmental needs. A new model should reflect lessons from successful international experiments in community energy and ownership models that shift governance away from private capital and into the realm of local democracy. This section outlines our proposal for how a new era of community power can integrate into a wider public energy system, where at the highest level a central GB Energy board is responsible for roll out of the Local Power Plan with strategic and cross-national coordination, setting targets for project implementation with input from lower levels — and providing the resources to realise those goals — to assist the flourishing of local power ownership. Below this top tier, regional energy boards with members elected from local projects, trade unions and subject matter experts can influence capacity-building and workforce development while pooling resources for further projects aligned with social and environmental need, amounting to a regional industrial strategy. The third level — where communities would co-own and benefit from new renewable power — would be comprised of public-common partnerships, where the Local Power Plan capitalises jointly-owned enterprises between municipalities and energy cooperatives, tenants unions or community benefit associations.  

The key goals of this proposal are to:

  • Reverse the recent stagnation of community power development;
  • Triple the number of co-operative energy projects underway by 2030;
  • Contribute to UK-wide power decarbonisation, energy security, and bills reduction — while recognising community power will play a small role.

While this model employs different levels of governance, each layer must be accountable to one of the other tiers in addition to public stakeholders to execute on democratically agreed upon targets. Further, it should integrate worker voice at every level, including local operations.[68]

How Great British Energy can support community power

As outlined in a previously published paper, we envisage three roles for the new public energy company Great British Energy: large scale development and operation of publicly-owned renewable assets; support in scaling domestic supply chains through the procurement attendant to its direct investment in clean generation and auxiliary infrastructure; and finally, a role in capitalising and scaling community energy via the Local Power Plan. In relation to that final role, we recommend that GBE’s primary responsibility is allocating the £3.3 billion of support, and assisting municipalities with leveraging additional resources from institutions with regional development and climate mandates, such as the UK Infrastructure Bank — drawing a lesson from the role German state infrastructure banks have played in developing the country’s renewable energy system.  We recommend that the capitalisation fund is uncapped. If there is greater demand from local authorities and communities for investment from the Local Power Plan into projects, then the scale of support should not be arbitrarily capped at £3.3 billion; instead, GBE should be able to issue bonds to enable it to support the more rapid buildout of public owned clean energy projects where there is demand and viability. GBE should take a proactive role in dispersing these funds, creating a large-scale map of high priority areas to guide investments that considers criteria such as regional deprivation, reported levels of fuel poverty, history of deindustrialisation, capacity for wind and solar development, and any additional criteria suggested by the national GBE board or public engagement. All criteria may not be initially satisfied by prioritising project rollout and power capacity, but these limitations can be overcome as the Local Power Plan progresses year on year.[69]

This active approach similarly requires skill, capacity and workforce development in identifying and pursuing potential projects across all nations, regions and communities of the UK. Indeed, to kickstart community power it is likely that GB Energy would need to do the heavy lifting of site development, infrastructure and the like for onshore projects. Doing so would require GBE to directly approach relevant municipalities or regions and widely advertise potential project support to citizen associations in the target community, such as proposing rooftop solar to tenant unions and housing estates, or a wind cooperative to rural areas with high energy potential. While communities would still be tasked with creating proposals, proactively sharing opportunities and assisting development could speed up early project uptake. As demonstrated by the early Danish regulatory experience fostering infant industry, creating top-down support directly and indirectly can foster a wide variety of public ownership models while providing coordination and integration that would assist with regional development and resource distribution. The absence of this coordination would likely contribute to gated energy communities that have the capacity to execute on projects and funding opportunities at the expense of less-resourced neighbours.

The regional level

Regional Boards are inspired by the German experience of network municipalities and pooled resources. These boards would be charged with redistributing the surplus produced by local energy projects, directing funds to flow into either a new opportunity in their jurisdiction or addressing existing social need between communities with differing levels of energy production and profit. Its board membership should be representative of the regional population, and include community energy project representatives, as well as figures from local authorities, devolved government ministerial appointments (where they exist), reserved seats for worker representatives and relevant civil society representatives or subject matter experts from the region. To allocate surplus, it should set aside a non-trivial amount for a participatory budgeting cycle so citizens can offer proposals to benefit the wider region. It would be subject to the same public meeting and transparency rules as its centralised counterpart.  

The regional level may be a useful tool for industrial strategy, procuring and spending locally where possible and appropriate to support local supply chains and ensure quality employment.[70] This could be ensured both by guidelines and informal institutions that support social goals such as, for example, businesses that employ unionised workers, larger numbers of people of colour or disabled workers.[71] Jobs may not always be found where projects are geographically located, but where the supply chains are: this could be an impetus for long-term commitments in procurement and drive investments along the criteria of locality, zero carbon and diversity.[72] As seen in Germany, a regional body should be considered a site for close partnership between municipalities and an arena for broader region-wide energy to accommodate weaknesses and strengths between communities. This investment in people and place will develop a rooted well-paid workforce with embedded local enterprise benefiting from multipliers of coordinated regional spending.[73] These powers could be considered an opportunity to scale-up energy projects within a region through combined resources and capacity without sacrificing local democratic governance. It can thus take an active role in just transition pathways for local workers and ameliorate any effects on employment opportunities.

The local level

The Local Power Plan should — along with local authorities and commons associations — help capitalise the creation of public-common partnerships that in the long term could engage in local generation of renewable energy. Local authorities and commons associations should also put resources into financing new public-common partnerships. Public-common partnerships are “a series of principles and processes that need to be designed and implemented on a largely case-by-case basis” more than a strict recipe to follow.[74] However, there are three common ingredients. First, PCPs entail a joint enterprise between a local authority and a commons association (such as a community benefit association, or an energy cooperative), where either group supplies a third of the new entity’s board. The common association board members could include trade union representatives, subject matter experts from interested parties like academics or environmental organisations. GBE could act as the third public leg for this governance model, offering another link to higher-level planning. Guaranteed worker representation on the board is a given, but attendance may not always be required given the low intensity of labour maintenance on projects. In this case, required attendance would be limited to relevant agenda items.[75]  

Given the low ongoing operating costs of renewable energy, the remaining surplus profit the joint enterprise may be split between the regional board and the local citizen association. This may lead to questions of who the commons or community is when deciding investment on returns; for example, the benefits of a solar project on the roof of a council estate belong, it might be argued, to the tenants or residents at large.[76] The public-common model partly responds to this by both having wider and narrower community representation respectively between the democratic body (e.g. the local or combined authority) and commons association, but realistically there may have to be a period of experimentation to determine what arrangement is appropriate in collaboration with local actors. As seen in Demark, the shared effort and benefit of developing a community-owned energy project can secure local support for projects which otherwise face resistance from other residents.  That can be achieved by offering material benefits, like reinvestments into the community via a citizen’s association, reduced energy bills and a more efficient power usage. As seen in Wolfgang, a public-common partnership may simply choose to pay out a dividend to energy cooperative members after offering a limited amount shares per resident. In addition to public ownership requirements, these projects would also gain support as a source of employment supplied by regional boards operating on fair wage clauses and guaranteed work conditions and support of union labour. While this would ensure equitable work access across the board, it would also overcome the barrier of low capacity to maintain energy infrastructure. Municipalities would likewise have to demonstrate some level of capacity before receiving funding from GBE, which could offer recommendations and mentoring during this process. GBE would further act to capitalise local projects, but in the interests of local ownership would restrict its presence to national and regional boards. Its role would also be to handhold development and planning, then step away to allow local governance take the lead as long as local ownership requirements are met.

Reform to planning system

To achieve its fullest potential, the Local Power Plan should unfold against the backdrop of reform of the planning system. Existing proposals by Friends of the Earth would do much to alleviate these issues.[77] Planning rules should fully reverse the 2015 restrictions so the burden on councils is reduced and so that the NPPF no longer blocks projects because of limited opposition of a select few residents.[78] Likewise, GB Energy should assist local planning authorities to ensure they are identifying suitable areas to the greatest reasonable degree, while enabling community stakeholder input to help identify and accommodate renewable development. GB Energy’s regional board could similarly partner with authorities by spreading best practice, capacity building and examples of successful renewable development.[79] For solar, the process of getting permits on existing properties should be eased and multifunctional land use should be encouraged in rural areas to blend agriculture and solar capacity.[80] The planning system cannot be a tool for a few residents to block projects that will build community wealth and bring down emissions. Local public ownership models will help build community support by locking in benefits with GB Energy support, but the planning system should smooth this process, not snarl it.

Evolving the Local Power Plan to accelerate community power

With GB Energy’s coordinating role — and the capitalisation available through the Local Power Plan — community energy will be able to evolve to meet the following challenges.

  • Finance. Great British Energy’s £3.3 billion for local power may limit more ambitious local projects from taking root and hinder the success of a model that would optimally be adopted by many communities, each burnishing each other’s efforts. Elements of Labour’s Local Power Plan — where loans could potentially be refinanced by community shares to be rolled into more projects — could be helpful but may require much more investment. Adopting regulations and subsidies friendly to local ownership, inspired by Denmark, or tapping developmental support from the UK Infrastructure Bank, as seen in equivalents in Germany, may respond to these challenges. The Treasury could alternatively support the issuance of municipal “green bonds” or explore more fixed financing sources.  As community ownership generates more surplus to be reinvested, some of these financial restraints may ease but the international lesson is clear that steady top-down support for years is required to make good on the promise of community-owned energy. What is clear is that given the benefits of accelerating the energy transition funding should be uncapped, with investment matching demand not falsely rationed.
  • Length of time. Our proposal, which relies on local experimentation, will require long-term commitment and support to reach its fullest potential. Part of that is the result of limited financing that will require time to develop the model’s own investment strategy, and part of that is the pace it will take to develop a network of public-common partnership with capacity to support one another. It may take years to achieve a self-sustaining model depending on the varying levels of engagement and capacity across the UK. Limited financing may mean fewer communities benefit from the proposal, making it more difficult to sustain local energy democracy through successive governments and political shifts. Waiting for adequate support constitutes a real political risk during climate emergency, but rolling out projects early in areas with the highest capacity may speed this process along.
  • A hostile market environment. Other UK attempts at municipalising energy service have struggled in part because they faced a wider landscape of for-profit oligopolies in the energy system. In the absence of a fully public energy system, efforts to achieve local collective ownership or bring energy bills down will face significant barriers. Elsewhere, the success of Germany’s renewable energy is partly due to having a locally integrated capacity, taking over the infrastructure of grid, distribution energy production and retail that places utilities outside of market dynamics.[81] Broader grid nationalisation of the British energy system would bolster attempts at local ownership and widen the variety of local engagement in the energy system.
  • Too many meetings. Some critics of local ownership argue that residents may be resistant to their council taking on new responsibilities or are dubious of resident interest in governing their energy future.[82] While the international experience cuts against these assertions, we should not overestimate the commitment required for governing local projects with relatively low maintenance costs and concerns, nor should we underestimate the capacity of citizens given real power in their community instead of token consultation. The biggest danger may be excessive caution of local democracy, not the embrace of it.[83]


Giving power to the people does not mean token consultation. The experiences of Germany and Denmark both suggest that local ownership of clean energy can clear barriers to development by giving residents a real stake and benefit in projects and offer a path to meeting social need in communities. The UK is currently failing its communities by relying on far-off private sector ownership to deliver energy that cuts against the goals of energy transition and the demands of eliminating fuel poverty. Local renewable projects have stalled, social need has deepened, and inequality has risen as three decades of discredited privatisation continue. Returning power to workers, households and municipalities can act as both an immediate relief and a springboard to treating energy as a fundamental right that is essential to human flourishing.  Establishing a federated system of energy democracy can blend local governance with central capacity to bring this goal closer to reality and reduce the role private capital has played in miscoordination of our energy system. Community consent to new projects is earned by handing over the reins to the people who live there. This proposal is an alternative that disperses power to those who use it and produce it, not those who profit from it.


[#fn1][1][#fn1] Vera Weghmann, “Going Public: A Decarbonised, Affordable and Democratic Energy System for Europe”, PSIRU, University of Greenwich, 2019. Available here.

[#fn2][2][#fn2] “North Ayrshire Economic Recovery and Renewal Approach”, North Ayrshire Council, September 2020. Available here. Steven Morris, “Welsh solar farm exceeds expectations in powering Swansea hospital”, The Guardian, 14 March 2022. Available here.

[#fn3][3][#fn3] Kai Heron, Keir Milburn, Bertie Russell, Mathew Lawrence, “Public-Common Partnerships: Democratising Ownership and Urban Development”, Common Wealth, 2021. Available here.

[#fn4][4][#fn4] “What is Community Energy?”, Community Energy England. Available here.

[#fn5][5][#fn5] “State of the Sector”, Community Energy England, 2022. Available here.

[#fn6][6][#fn6] “Case studies”, Community Energy England. Available here.

[#fn7][7][#fn7] “State of the Sector”, Community Energy England.

[#fn8][8][#fn8] Ibid.

[#fn9][9][#fn9] Rebecca Willis, Jacob Ainscough, Peter Bryant, Giz Goold, Mara Livermore and Caroline Tosal. “Citizen and specialist co-design of energy policy: The case of home energy decarbonization in the UK”, Environmental Science and Policy, 2024.

[#fn10][10][#fn10] “State of the Sector”, Community Energy England.

[#fn11][11][#fn11] Matthew Hannon, Iain Cairns, Tim Braunholtz-Speight, Jeff Hardy, Carly McLachlan; Sarah Mander, Maria Sharmina, “Carrots, sticks and sermons: Policies to unlock community energy finance in the United Kingdom”, Energy Research & Social Science, 2023-06, Vol.100.

[#fn12][12][#fn12] Iain Cairns, Matthew Hannon, Tim Braunholtz-Speight, Carly McLachlan, Sarah Mander, Jeff Hardy, Maria Sharmina and Ed Manderson, “Financing grassroots innovation diffusion pathways: the case of UK community energy”, UK Energy Research Centre, 2022. Available here.

[#fn13][13][#fn13] Adam Vaughn, “UK green energy investment halves after policy changes”, The Guardian, 16 January 2018. Available here.

[#fn14][14][#fn14] “Accelerating Net Zero Delivery”, UKRI, March 2022. Available here.

[#fn15][15][#fn15] Cairns et al., “Financing grassroots innovation diffusion pathways: the case of UK community energy”. Available here.

[#fn16][16][#fn16] Hannon et al., “Carrots, sticks and sermons: Policies to unlock community energy finance in the United Kingdom”, 2023.

[#fn17][17][#fn17] Maya Singer Hobbs, Luke Murphy, Joshua Emden, Becca Massey-Chase, Lesley Rankin and Stephen Frost, “Planning for Net Zero and Nature”, Institute for Public Policy Research, 2023. Available here.

[#fn18][18][#fn18] Fiona Harvey, “Campaigners fear government will drop onshore windfarm promise in England”, The Guardian, 16 August 2023. Available here.

[#fn19][19][#fn19] Rebecca Windemer, “Onshore wind farm restrictions continue to stifle Britain’s renewable energy potential”, The Conversation, 12 October 2020. Available here.  Maya Singer Hobbs, Luke Murphy, Joshua Emden, Becca Massey-Chase, Lesley Rankin and Stephen Frost, “Planning for Net Zero and Nature”, Institute for Public Policy Research, 2023. Available here.

[#fn20][20][#fn20] Helena Horton, “Zero onshore wind plans submitted in England since de facto ban was ‘lifted’”, The Guardian, 27 December 2023. Available here.

[#fn21][21][#fn21] Windemer, “Onshore wind farm restrictions continue to stifle Britain’s renewable energy potential”, The Conversation, 12 October 2020. Available here.

[#fn22][22][#fn22] Hobbs, Murphy, Emden, Massey-Chase, Rankin and Frost, “Planning for Net Zero and Nature”, Institute for Public Policy Research, 2023. Available here.

[#fn23][23][#fn23] Ibid.

[#fn24][24][#fn24] Adam Vaughan, “Solar farms face 20-year waits for a connection to the grid”, The Times, 25 May 2023. Available here.

[#fn25][25][#fn25] Hannah Thomas-Peter, “Crackdown on 'zombie' energy projects blocking National Grid to end squeeze on Britain’s power supply”, Sky News, 2 June 2023. Available here.

[#fn26][26][#fn26] Dimtris Mavrokefalidis, “Ofgem cracks down on zombie energy projects”, Energy Live News, 18 March 2024.  Available here.

[#fn27][27][#fn27] “A lack of ‘suitable areas’ for onshore wind in local plans”, Friends of the Earth, 2022. Available here.

[#fn28][28][#fn28] Rebecca Windemer, “The impact of the 2015 onshore wind policy change for local planning authorities in England: Preliminary survey results”, University of Western England, 2022. Available here.

[#fn29][29][#fn29] Ibid.

[#fn30][30][#fn30] Hobbs, Murphy, Emden, Massey-Chase, Rankin and Frost, “Planning for Net Zero and Nature”, Institute for Public Policy Research, 2023. Available here.

[#fn31][31][#fn31] Toby Helm and Robin McKie, “Three-quarters of Britons back expansion of wind power, poll reveals”, The Guardian, 10 April 2022. Available here. Jillian Ambrose, “UK homes install ‘record number’ of solar panels and heat pumps”, The Guardian, 14 August 2023. Available here.

[#fn32][32][#fn32] “British energy security strategy”, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, April 2022.

[#fn33][33][#fn33] Jack Richardson, Ned Hammond, Alex Luke and Phoebe Bunt, “Power to the People”, UK Onward, 2023. Available here.

[#fn34][34][#fn34] Jørgensen, Marie Leer, Helle Tegner Anker and Jesper Lassen, “Distributive fairness and local acceptance of wind turbines: The role of compensation schemes”, Energy Policy, 138, 2020.

[#fn35][35][#fn35] Ibid.

[#fn36][36][#fn36] "Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan", Labour Party, 2024.

[#fn37][37][#fn37] Ibid.

[#fn38][38][#fn38] “Case Study: Ambition Community Energy”, Power to Change, 2023. Available here.

[#fn39][39][#fn39] Tom Wall, “England’s tallest wind turbine prepares to rise against the odds”, The Guardian, 9 February 2023. Available here.

[#fn40][40][#fn40] Emma Grimshaw, “Bristol group built wind turbine that can generate £1M of electricity each year”, Bristol Live, 1 August 2023. Available here.

[#fn41][41][#fn41] Leire Gorroño-Albizu, Karl Sperling, Søren Djørup, “The past, present and uncertain future of community energy in Denmark: Critically reviewing and conceptualising citizen ownership”, Energy Research & Social Science, November 2019, Vol. 57, p. 1-12.

[#fn42][42][#fn42] Soren Becker, “Our City, Our Grid: The energy remunicipalisation trend in Germany” in Madeleine Bélanger Dumontier and Ann Doherty (eds) Reclaiming Public Services, Transnational Institute, 2017. Available here.

[#fn43][43][#fn43] Satoko Kishimoto, Lavinia Steinfort and Olivier Petitjean (eds), The Future is Public: Towards the Democratic Ownership of Public Services, Transnational Institute, 2017. Available here.

[#fn44][44][#fn44] Andrew Cumbers, Mike Danson and Geoff Whittam, “Repossessing the future: a Common Weal strategy for community and democratic ownership of Scotland’s energy resources”, Jimmy Reid Foundation, 2013. Available here.

[#fn45][45][#fn45] David Hall, “Re-municipalising municipal services in Europe”, Public Services International Research Unit, 2012. Available here.

[#fn46][46][#fn46] “Annual and Sustainability Report”, Trianel, 2022. Available here.

[#fn47][47][#fn47] Franziska Christina Paul, and Andrew Cumbers, “The return of the local state? Failing neoliberalism, remunicipalisation, and the role of the state in advanced capitalism”, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, Vol, 55, Issue 1, 3 November 2021.

[#fn48][48][#fn48] Ibid.

[#fn49][49][#fn49] Ibid.

[#fn50][50][#fn50] Keir Milburn and Bertie Russell, “Public-Common Partnerships: Building New Circuits of Collective Ownership”, Common Wealth, 2019. Available here.

[#fn51][51][#fn51] Kai Heron, Keir Milburn, Bertie Russell, Mathew Lawrence, “Public-Common Partnerships: Democratising ownership and urban development”, Common Wealth, 2021. Available here.

[#fn52][52][#fn52] Andrew Cumbers and Sören Becker, “Making sense of remunicipalisation: theoretical reflections on and political possibilities from Germany’s Rekommumalisierung process”, Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, Vol. 11, Issue 3, p. 503–517.

[#fn53][53][#fn53] Oliver Wagner and Kurt Berlo, “Remunicipalisation and Foundation of Municipal Utilities in the German Energy Sector: Details about Newly Established Enterprises”, Journal of Sustainable Development of Energy, Water and Environment Systems, Vol. 5, Issue 3, p. 396-407.

[#fn54][54][#fn54] Ibid.

[#fn55][55][#fn55] “Share of electricity production from wind,” Our World in Data, 2023. Available here.

[#fn56][56][#fn56] Cumbers, Danson and Whittam, “Repossessing the future”, Jimmy Reid Foundation, 2013. Available here.

[#fn57][57][#fn57] Leire Gorroño-Albizu, Karl Sperling, Søren Djørup, “The past, present and uncertain future of community energy in Denmark: Critically reviewing and conceptualising citizen ownership”, Energy Research and Social Science, Volume 57, November 2019; “Promotion of Renewable Energy Act”, International Energy Agency, 2021. Available here.

[#fn58][58][#fn58] Andrew Cumbers, Reclaiming Public Ownership: Making Space for Economic Democracy, Zed Books, 2012.

[#fn59][59][#fn59] Cumbers, Danson and Whittam, “Repossessing the future”, Jimmy Reid Foundation, 2013. Available here.

[#fn60][60][#fn60] Ibid.; Jens H. Møllgaard Larsen, Hans Christian Soerensen, Erik Christiansen, “Experiences from Middelgrunden 40 MW Offshore Wind Farm”, Copenhagen Offshore Wind Conference, January 2005. Available here.

[#fn61][61][#fn61] Ibid.

[#fn62][62][#fn62] Helen Traill, Andrew Cumbers and Neil Gray, “The state of European municipal energy transition: an overview of current trends”, MP Power, 25 May 2021. Available here.

[#fn63][63][#fn63] Cumbers and Traill, “Public ownership in the pursuit of economic democracy in a post-neoliberal order”, in Economic Policies for a Post-Neoliberal World, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, p. 225–268.

[#fn64][64][#fn64] Simona Benedettini and Carlo Stagnaro, “Energy communities in Europe: a review of the Danish and German experiences”, in Sabine Löbbe, Fereidoon Sioshansi and David Robinson (eds) Energy Communities Customer-Centered, Market Driven, Welfare-Enhancing?, Academic Press, 2022.

[#fn65][65][#fn65] Traill, Cumbers and Gray, “The state of European municipal energy transition: an overview of current trends”, MP Power, 25 May 2021. Available here.

[#fn66][66][#fn66] Franziska Mey and Mark Diesendorf, “Who owns an energy transition? Strategic action fields and community wind energy in Denmark”, Energy Reseqrch and Social Science, Volume 35, January 2018, p. 108-117.

[#fn67][67][#fn67] Helen Traill and Andrew Cumbers, “The state of municipal energy transitions: Multi-scalar constraints and enablers of Europe’s post-carbon energy ambitions”, European Urban and Regional Studies, Vol. 30, Issue 2, 23 August 2022. Available here. Benedettini and Carlo, “Energy communities in Europe: a review of the Danish and German experiences”, Energy Communities Customer-Centered, Market Driven, Welfare-Enhancing?, Academic Press, 2022.

[#fn68][68][#fn68] Cumbers, Danson and Whittam, “Repossessing the future”, Jimmy Reid Foundation, 2013. Available here.

[#fn69][69][#fn69] Conversation with TUC Policy Officer for Industry and Climate Anna Markova.

[#fn70][70][#fn70] Anna Markova and Mika Minio-Paluello “Public Power: turning it into reality”, TUC, 7 Aug 2023. Available here.

[#fn71][71][#fn71] Conversation with TUC Policy Officer for Industry and Climate Anna Markova.

[#fn72][72][#fn72] Ibid.

[#fn73][73][#fn73] Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neil, The Case for Community Wealth Building, Polity Books, 2019.

[#fn74][74][#fn74] Milburn and Russell, “Public-Common Partnerships: Building New Circuits of Collective Ownership”, Common Wealth, 2019. Available here.

[#fn75][75][#fn75] Conversation with TUC Policy Officer for Industry and Climate Anna Markova.

[#fn76][76][#fn76] Ibid.

[#fn77][77][#fn77] “A lack of ‘suitable areas’ for onshore wind in local plans”, Friends of the Earth, 2022. Available here.

[#fn78][78][#fn78] Ibid.

[#fn79][79][#fn79] Ibid.

[#fn80][80][#fn80] Hobbs, Murphy, Emden, Massey-Chase, Rankin and Frost, “Planning for Net Zero and Nature”, Institute for Public Policy Research, 2023. Available here.

[#fn81][81][#fn81] Conversation with Professor Andrew Cumbers.

[#fn82][82][#fn82] “British energy security strategy”, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, April 2022,  Richardson, Hammond, Luke and Bunt, "Power to the People", UK Onward, 2023. Available here.

[#fn83][83][#fn83] Guinan and O’Neil, The Case for Community Wealth Building, Polity Books, 2019.